Zimbabwe on edge of hunger

Zimbabwe is facing its worst agricultural season since independence in 1980, farmers and other experts warn.

Critical shortages of seed, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs are threatening next year's harvest before it has even been planted, according to evidence presented Tuesday to Parliament's agriculture committee, the state-run Herald newspaper and ruling party-allied Daily Mirror reported.

Fertilizer companies told the committee their warehouses are empty. The Zimbabwe Seed Traders Association reported there is only 26,000 metric tons (28,660 U.S. tons) of maize seed in the country, just over half what is needed, the AP informs.

The Agricultural Dealers and Manufacturers' Association has run out of plow disks for the first time in its history. There are also key shortages of irrigation piping, pumps, pesticides and other chemicals, suppliers said.

"The information you have given us simply shows that there is no season," committee chairman Walter Mzembi was quoted as saying by the AP.

The seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black Zimbabweans, combined with years of drought, have crippled Zimbabwe's agriculture-based economy. Some 4 million people will need food aid before the next harvest in what was once a regional breadbasket, according to U.N. estimates.

"This coming season's production prospects are the worst since 1980 independence due to inputs shortages and the lack of a strong message to allow all farmers to produce with confidence," Doug Taylor-Freeme, president of the mostly white Commercial Farmers Union, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

President Robert Mugabe's government claims to have settled 300,000 black families on former white-owned farms, but U.N. agencies report many are derelict, with irrigation and housing vandalized, and livestock stolen or slaughtered.

Mugabe has promised 7 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (US$287 million; Ђ240 million) in assistance to black farmers. But Edward Raradza, vice president of the black Zimbabwe Farmers' Union, said 60 percent of the funds advanced by government for cropping had not reached their intended beneficiaries. His organization represents 800,000 families in communal farming areas.

"There have been too many middlemen," testified Wilfanos Mashingaidze, chairman of the Tobacco Growers' Trust. "The resources from government are going down the drain. They are disappearing like mist."

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